Anyone who has even cursory awareness of Steve Earle as either an artist or person knows the man very much walks to the beat of his own drummer, critics be damned. For a self-described "pinko, slightly to the left of Mao," Earle has been unbending in defending his First Amendment rights and has logged plenty of years under his belt as a passionate death penalty opponent.
As one of the young singer-songwriter turks (whose ranks included k.d. Lang, Lyle Lovett and Dwight Yoakam) who seemingly invaded Nashville in the late '80s, Earle hasn't been shy about going his own creative way and being adamant about his beliefs and likes. (As a longtime admirer of his late mentor Townes Van Zandt, Earle once famously said, "Townes Van Zandt is the best songwriter in the whole world and I'll stand on Bob Dylan's coffee table in my cowboy boots and say that.") Never mind that Earle named one of his sons after Van Zandt in addition to recording an album made up entirely of his deceased friend's material.
So it shouldn't surprise anyone that Earle, whose brand of character-driven narratives have made him a much-beloved figure in the alt-country world, decided to make his latest recording, "Terraplane," a blues album.
"The bar is pretty high when you come from Texas, and as a songwriter, [recording a blues album] always interested (me)," he explained from a tour stop in Arizona. "I had the band once [guitarist] Chris Masterson came along. So I started writing one song after another and before you know it, I was writing a blues record."
Earle clearly knows his way around the genre if a show he played earlier in the year at the famed Electric Lady Studios was any indication. Despite fighting a head cold, the Texas troubadour was in fine fettle, leading his four-piece outfit, the Dukes, through the entirety of the new record. With Masterson serving as his anchor, Earle shifted easily from the gloriously filthy dirge that is "King of the Blues" to the Stonesy strut that is "Go Go Boots Are Back," sprinkling in numerous anecdotes including one about how he and Rocky Hill (brother of ZZ Top bassist Dusty Hill) saw Canned Heat in Houston when both were 15.
As for the new record, Earle came up with a platter made up of 11 self-penned songs. They reflect a psychedelicized approach to the blues that comes by way of an education in the genre shaped by teen years spent basking in the sounds of blues-rock boogie masters Canned Heat and fellow Lone Star musician Johnny Winter and his 1968 debut, "The Progressive Blues Experiment."
Earle goes with the perfect musical bookends for "Terraplane" — opening number "Baby Baby Baby (Baby)," a slew-foot shuffle garnished with dirty harp riffs, and the gloriously filthy dirge "King of the Blues. In between is a tasty sandwich whose highlights include the Texas troubadour trying on a Stonesy strut ("Go Go Boots Are Back"), getting playful with Duke member Eleanor Whitmore on a fiddle-tweaked duet (a bouncy "Baby's Just As Mean As Me") and completely destroying, with some help from iambic pentameter, on a stream-of-consciousness fever dream retelling of the crossroads myth (an ominous "The Tennessee Kid"). It's about as far from bro country as you can get.
So while the idea of a blues album being cut by someone who's often defined as being a country artist might seem a tad radical, the notion goes back to those aforementioned teen years when Earle moved to the south side of San Antonio from the small town of Schertz when he was 13.
"I was in school with guys who were in the ninth grade and some of them had become so radicalized I guess—everyone around there was listening to country music and the people that were playing were playing country music—so the way they reacted to it was by starting a blues band," he recalled. "I was in a blues band when I was 13 and [eventually] got kicked out for wanting to play a Donovan song. But girls like Donovan, so I wasn't stupid. But we were playing the Butterfield Blues Band version of 'Stormy Monday' and we were listening to a lot of Shuggie Otis and Freddie King. I backtrack to a lot of John Lee Hooker from Canned Heat and Howlin' Wolf from Johnny Winter."
In reality, elements of blues have shown up on many of Earle's albums, even if country and rock have been the predominant ingredients in his music.
The country side of his music was especially pronounced on Earle's debut album, 1986's "Guitar Town," whose edgy sound shook up the mainstream country scene and opened the doors to what is now known as alternative country.
But by his third album, 1988's "Copperhead Road," rock and hard-edged folk were emerging as bigger ingredients in Earle's sound, and strains of blues also began to filter into songs.
Earle's momentum was slowed after the 1990 album, "The Hard Way," as drug problems took hold and he eventually spent 60 days in jail on drug charges – a time that allowed Earle to get clean and return with renewed vigor with the acoustic-centric 1995 album, "Train a Comin' and 1996's plugged in effort, "I Feel Alright."
Since then, Earle has delivered a string of consistently solid albums that have deftly blended his rock, folk, country and blues influences, with "Terraplane" (his 16th album overall), obviously, leaning more on that latter style.
Although he finally got the blues album out of his system, it's yet another project quickly fading in the rearview mirror as the prolific Earle has plenty more creative irons in the fire. Having moved to New York City for live theater and major league baseball, (the native Texan is a rabid Yankees fan), Earle is working on transforming his 2007 album "Washington Square Serenade" into a book/musical, with him working on the latter part while contracting someone to write the former. But in the immediate future, he's fast at work on two albums, one with singer-songwriter Shawn Colvin and the other a return to his country music roots.
"Shawn and I are making a record together and that's something that I talked about for a long time. We're doing a Colvin-Earle record in November and Buddy Miller is producing it. That's what I'll be doing next year," he explained. "I'm [also] going to make a country record that's half written. It might be the next Dukes record and it's probably going to be based on what I might have done after "Guitar Town" if Jimmy Bowen (head of his label at the time, MCA Records) hadn't have pissed me off. It's probably still going to sound like a Waylon Jennings record, I don't know."